If John Ward thought things were getting too serious, he'd do a handstand just for the hell of it

4th April 2003 at 01:00
When I was 10, my father's job took him to Italy, and I was sent to the International School of Milan, which was a melting pot of children from all over the world. The teachers came from all over the world too, and they were an anarchic bunch.

One of my favourites was Mrs McKay, who taught English. She was a rigorous grammar teacher in a way that I never came across at any other point in my education. She was obsessed with the minutiae of grammar: sub-clauses, subjunctives and all that. But she livened up what could have been dry, boring lessons by suddenly taking off her wig. She had auburn hair, and one day it would be short, and the next long, but it took us a while to suspect that she wore a wig. Eventually, someone plucked up the courage to ask, and after that she would whip it off just to liven things up.

There was another English teacher at the school I liked - John Ward. He had long blond hair and a big moustache, and we thought he was groovy. His trick when a class got boring was to do a handstand. We'd be sitting with heads down writing, and if he thought things were getting serious, he'd do a handstand - just for the hell of it. He was fantastic. He was in his 30s I think, a funky guy who wore jeans and tank tops, which were very trendy in the 1970s.

I was one of the few in the class for whom English was a first language, and while the others were doing basic stuff, which I finished quickly, he'd call me to his desk. We'd discuss literature, read poetry, and he'd show me pictures of Goya paintings. He was particularly interested in the Spanish civil war. We talked about things that weren't always related to English, but were part of his aim of expanding my horizons. I learned from him to appreciate creative writing and to think critically. If the head had walked in while Mr Ward was doing one of his handstands, he wouldn't have cared two hoots. Although education was taken seriously, it was a relaxed school.

There was no uniform and the curriculum was pretty flexible.

Madame Vassallo, who taught French, had a unique style. From the moment she walked in the classroom she spoke nothing but French, and we were only allowed to speak French. At first, we couldn't understand a word as she chattered away, but gradually it began to sink in. Even if we put up our hand to go to the loo, or to ask what something meant, we'd have to say it in French. We were baffled to begin with, but her technique worked.

When I came to England at 14 and went to Haberdashers' Aske's in south-east London, it was a shock. It was an all-girls school with a structured curriculum. Everyone wore uniform and the pupils seemed very sophisticated.

A lot wore make-up and smoked.

There were other fantastic teachers at Aske's, including Doris Griffin, who taught music. The school was known for its music, and its reputation was all down to her. She taught music O-level and A-level. She organised choirs, put on musicals, and even operas. Miss Griffin was one of those teachers with a passion for what she did, which she couldn't help but communicate to others. Even non-musical girls came out of that school with some love of music. She was inspirational, dedicated, and a lovely woman, with a mischievous sense of fun.

About four years ago, when I went back for a reunion, I saw her for the first time since I'd left. She hadn't changed a bit. She asked me to call her Doris, but I couldn't bring myself to.

I enjoyed my school days enormously. Italy was fun. Aske's was different, but the teachers were good, caring and serious about their work. I made the best friends of my life at school.

Newsreader Fiona Bruce was talking to Pamela Coleman


1964 Born in Singapore

1974-78 International school, Milan

1978-82 Haberdashers' Aske's school, south-east London

1982-86 Reads French and Italian at Oxford University

1986-87 Trainee management consultant

1989 Joins BBC's Panorama as a researcher

1992-93 Reporter on BBC Breakfast News

1996-98 Reporter for Newsnight

1998-2000 Presents The Antiques Show

2000 onwards Presents Crimewatch

June 2001 Becomes the BBC's first woman presenter of a general election

January 2003 Becomes regular presenter on BBC's 10 o'clock News

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